A Chinese man who was reprimanded by police for warning fellow doctors about the newly discovered coronavirus has died just days after being diagnosed with the mysterious disease, local media reported Thursday.
Dr. Li Wenliang, 34, was one of the first people trying to sound the alarm about the pneumonia-like illness in late December, but authorities reportedly accused him of spreading rumors and “severely disturbing the social order.” It was only three weeks later that Chinese officials acknowledged the threat and confirmed the outbreak.
Li, who was an ophthalmologist in Wuhan, the epicenter of the virus, was diagnosed with the virus on Jan. 30 and succumbed to the illness on Thursday night, according to state-run People’s Daily newspaper.
A World Health Organization official briefly commented on Li’s death during a news conference in Geneva, Switzerland.
“We are very sad to hear of the loss of Dr. Li Wenliang,” the agency’s emergencies chief, Dr. Michael Ryans, told reporters.
“We are very sorry to hear of the loss of any front-line worker who’s attempted to care for patients,” he added. “We should celebrate his life and mourn his death with his colleagues.”
Li, who’s now being described as a whistleblower, shared a message in an online chat group on Dec. 30 warning other doctors that seven patients had been quarantined in his hospital with a respiratory disease that resembled SARS, another type of coronavirus that killed hundreds of people in China in the early 2000s.
Four days after screenshots of that message went viral on social media, Li was summoned to the Public Security Bureau, where he was told to stop making false comments online, according to a BBC News report.
Li continued treating patients after the police encounter and eventually contracted the virus himself.
The case has drawn outrage in China as critics accused the country’s ruling Community Party of prioritizing politics and censorship over protecting public health.
As of Thursday, the virus has killed more than 560 people and sickened about 28,000 others in China alone. More than 200 cases have been confirmed elsewhere, including a dozen in the U.S, but only two people have died outside mainland China — one in Hong Kong and one in the Philippines.
The outbreak has led Chinese authorities to lock down Wuhan and more than a dozen other cities, close major tourist sites and canceled multiple events to contain the spread of the disease.
The WHO, which last week declared the outbreak a global health emergency, has urged the international community to raise $675 million to prepare and respond to the crisis in the next few months.
One of the largest donations so far has come from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The Seattle-based charity announced Wednesday it would provide up to $100 million to improve detection, isolation and treatment efforts and accelerate the development of vaccines and drugs.
“Our hope is that these resources will help catalyze a rapid and effective international response,” CEO Mark Suzman said in a statement. “This response should be guided by science, not fear, and it should build on the steps that the World Health Organization has taken to date.”